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Islamist victory in Tunisia

The moderate En Nahda party promises to respect civil rights, including those of women

The victory of the moderate Islamist party En Nahda in the recent, historic elections in Tunisia - the first free, democratic elections ever held in this North African country - constitutes a landmark in the Arab world. The civic spirit and enthusiasm shown by the voters after decades of repression are certain to stand as an example for other countries in the region that have managed to throw off their tyrants, or are on the way to doing so.

The elections have dispelled the oft-claimed, but simplistic and unrealistic idea of a well-established secular majority in Tunisia as a whole, though this condition does largely exist among the urban middle classes. En Nahda, the political party whose job it will necessarily be to bring together a broad coalition of disparate elements, which will then face the task of writing a new Constitution, is a party that has been relentlessly persecuted for decades by the overthrown Ben Ali.

In the course of the last few months - and particularly in the words of its chief, Rachid Ghannouchi, who has spent 22 years in exile - En Nahda has repeatedly asserted that, though Islamist, it will respect and protect the rights of everyone (including the rights newly won by Tunisian women) and will defend civil liberties.

The Constituent Assembly, comprising 217 members, which will meet in a few days, is extremely fragmented by proportional representation and by the multitude of parties that competed in the elections.

It must nevertheless designate a government to replace the present interim one, and bring forward remedies for the desperate economic crisis and the unemployment that prevails in Tunisia. But, above all else, it is going to have to organize a new national state, and a new society.

The moderate Islamism of En Nahda, which in the words of its leader proposes to resemble more the Islamism of the present Turkish government than that of the Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt, is going to face challenges such as that of structuring the relations between political power and the Islamic clergy, and of plotting a course for Tunisia among the other countries of the Arab world and in relations with the West.

And it will have to accomplish this delicate balancing act in the face of the skepticism of many Tunisians, especially those of the middle classes, concerning the real intentions of Ghannouchi, and his ability to keep his electoral promise to build a "model democratic society in the Arab world."

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